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Divine right to choose: a demonstrator at the April 25 abortion-rights rally in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Darryl McGrath
Faith, Hope and Choice
As the debate over abortion continues, pro-choice groups find surprising new allies among the ranks of the religious faithful

By Darryl McGrath

Among the multitudes who attended the abortion-rights march and rally Sunday in Washington, D.C., were hundreds–-possibly thousands—of ordained clergy and lay people who proclaimed both their religious faith and their belief in abortion rights.

They were Roman Catholics, Jews and Protestants. Some marched with groups that have made religion the basis of their support for legal abortion, including national organizations such as Catholics for a Free Choice, and local groups, such as the Pro-Choice Volunteers of Faith from Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood in Albany. Other faith-based marchers went on their own, stating personal religious beliefs as their reason for attending.

Faith-based supporters of abortion rights represent a growing phenomenon: people willing to publicly proclaim that religious beliefs can coincide with advocacy for legalized abortion.

After decades of religion being identified most often with the anti-abortion movement, the pro-choice faith movement is gaining ground, says Barbara Kavadias, director of field services for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Some 200 different religious organizations participated in the march, either as delegations or as cosponsors, Kavadias says. That number is far more than participated in comparable marches in Washington in 1989 and 1992.

“We had clergy from as far away as Alaska,” she says. “People came out of the woodwork. People stepped up to the plate.”

Many of these faith-based supporters of abortion rights have been galvanized by the violence at abortion clinics in the 1990s, when bombings and shootings resulted in numerous deaths and injuries to clinic doctors, escorts and staff, Kavadias says.

Others have become active in response to state and federal court decisions that have steadily restricted access to abortion.

Still others are reacting to new legislation and regulations crafted by the Bush administration that have been touted as protections for pregnant women but are seen by many as thinly veiled efforts to define a fetus as a child. Among the Bush initiatives: the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which made it a federal crime to destroy or harm the fetus during the commission of a crime against a pregnant woman; and a Health and Human Services regulation that expanded a health-insurance program intended for children so that it also covers a fetus.

Some of the clergy active in the abortion rights movement today worked to legalize abortion 35 and 40 years ago, but withdrew from those activities once the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision affirmed the right to an abortion, because they thought their work was done. Now, some of those early activists are joining younger clergy to keep abortion legal.

“I think that more clergy and lay leaders feel that if they do not speak out, far greater injustices will occur in this country,” Kavadias says. “They already see the impact of having been a little quieter for a few years.

The people who marched in Washington represented a range of ages, experiences and backgrounds. Among them was Barbara Ullman of Claverack. She is a past board member of Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood, and she is a Jewish woman who attends a Conservative synagogue in Albany.

On Sunday, she stood quietly with a friend among the throngs of people waving signs, and reached back to the ancient beliefs of her faith to explain her support for abortion rights.

“My religious tradition teaches me that life is sacred, and I protect that tradition when I make sure that I will support women whose lives would be endangered by carrying a pregnancy to term,” Ullman says. “People who are against abortion use that as a justification against us—they say, ‘You are not religious; you are not moral.’ Who are they to say that to me?”

Yet many people of faith could never reconcile their beliefs to support abortion rights. For some, that decision is individual; for others, it comes from the dictates of their religion. Among the most prominent faith-based opponents of abortion in New York is the Catholic Conference of New York State, representing the bishops.

Speakers from Catholics for a Free Choice stood front and center at the podium in Washington Sunday, but the Roman Catholic Church remains unequivocally and absolutely opposed to abortion.

“The primary principle of Catholic social teaching is respect for human life, because every life is made in the image of God,” says Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities at the Catholic Conference. “These are absolute moral teachings of the church—fundamental church doctrine—and the absolute evil of abortion is clear.”

Asked if it would be possible for a Catholic to support abortion rights and still be considered a member of the church in good standing in the eyes of the bishops, Gallagher responds simply, “No.”

As the hundreds of thousands of people began gathering on the Mall Sunday, the Rev. Tom Davis—a United Church of Christ minister, retired Skidmore College chaplain and associate professor of religion there—joined other faith-based marchers for a worship service.

Abortion-rights advocacy has defined Davis’ career. Now 69, Davis and his late wife, the Rev. Betsy Davis, belonged to the Clergy Consultation Service for Abortion, a volunteer network of about 1,500 clergy members that operated from 1967 to 1973. The Consultation Service referred women to doctors who would perform safe—albeit illegal—abortions.

Contrary to popular belief, the Clergy Consultation Service was not underground; the local chapter was listed in the Capital Region telephone directory, Davis said. As long as abortion remained illegal, there was little outcry against those trying to make it legal.

“It was when women got the right to make the decision that people got upset,” Davis says. “There have always been people who have had honest conscientious objections to abortion, and I respect them, but I think sexism has a lot to do with it.”

The Clergy Consultation Service for Abortion has long since disbanded; now, clergy working for abortion rights usually do so through statewide or national organizations. Among those groups is Clergy for Choice, an affiliate of the national Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington.

Some of the clergy who support abortion rights are following contemporary policies of their churches as well as personal beliefs. Linda Hoddy, the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs, says she would like abortion to be rare, but safe and legal when used. Her public declaration of that belief is buttressed by the Unitarian Universalist Society, which has supported legal abortion for 30 years.

“I see the need to speak out. I do not want to see us go back to women dying of illegal abortions,” says Hoddy, who traveled to Washington for the march. “I think for some denominations, it’s very difficult to speak out.”

Sometimes, a clergy member’s decision to support abortion rights is an obligation, not simply a moral choice.

The Capital Region members of Clergy for Choice include the Rabbi Don Cashman of B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation in Albany, who has been active in the abortion rights movement for 20 years. Teachings in Jewish religious law that support abortion rights can be traced to biblical times, Cashman said, built around the belief that the life and health of the mother takes precedence over the fetus.

His congregation and many others, especially in the Reform Jewish tradition, not only support abortion rights but expect their rabbi to, Cashman says.

“And for me, it’s a freedom of religion thing,” he says. “My reading of Jewish law is that it requires an abortion if the mother’s life is in danger.”

Two years ago, Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood in Albany founded Pro-Choice Volunteers of Faith as a way for lay people to have an organized role in the abortion advocacy movement.

“There are many national faith-based groups; most of them are clergy-centered,” says Blue Carreker, vice president for public affairs and marketing at Upper Hudson. “We really wanted to provide an avenue for people of faith to support each other and speak out.”

The group has about 15 members from the Capital Region. Among their activities so far: the production of a workshop, Promoting Healthy Sexuality, which is available to congregations, youth groups and community organizations.

Members say the group can offer an avenue for discussion of different views in the abortion debate.

“I understand this point of view of the other side, most of what they say,” says Jack Atwater of Grafton, a retired chemical engineer and a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany. He was one of several Pro-Choice Volunteers of Faith who traveled to Washington last week for the march.

“I think there’s always a chance for some reconciliation, but I don’t think it will ever be total,” Atwater says. “I have a great deal of respect for people whose consciousness tells them abortion is wrong.”

Dwight Smith of Poestenkill, a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Albany since 1968, also attended the march. Smith’s longtime advocacy for family planning and abortion rights stems from his childhood memories of his mother, a public-health nurse who once taught a course on venereal disease in the 1920s at Yale Medical School “because none of the medical staff would touch it,” Smith recalled.

Smith has been a volunteer escort at Planned Parenthood in Troy for five years, and the protests he has encountered there by Christian anti-abortion activists gave him an opportunity to ponder the chasm between the two sides long before he headed to Washington last weekend.

“The only way I approach it is to say to myself, ‘These people are sincere believers. I don’t believe what they believe,’” Smith says. “They have co-opted the word ‘Christian’ to mean themselves only. We’re both fallible, and we’re both believing that we’re right, and it’s not us who’s going to make the final decision on that, of course.”

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